Aquaculture in NC: Designed Ecosystems

Lest you think aquaculture is like your childhood fish tank on a larger scale, let me remind you of the plecostomus in that tank. You know, the thing that sat stuck to the back of the tank behind the plant so that the family could never quite find it. Yet somehow, despite the fact that you could swear it never moved and could have been a stone decoration rather than an organism, this little helper kept every surface of that tank sparkly clean. Algae-free glass, gravel, and plants. But what if you have large, outdoor ponds and each mouth to feed costs you money if it doesn’t eventually end up as dinner?

This is exactly when you have to stop thinking of these operations as just a tank of fish. They are nestled in the surrounding ecosystem, full of naturally occuring algae – some good and some bad. For eastern North Carolina, both the wind and the tide might carry in some future algae blooms to your tanks, which are well-stocked with nutrient-rich fish poop to feed it. Instead, as NC Aquaculture Conference speaker DE Brune puts it, you have to think of your tanks and ponds as “designed ecosystems”.

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Aquaculture in NC: North Carolina Aquaculture Development Conference

This past Friday on the banks of the Neuse in New Bern, NC, people interested in aquaculture in the region gathered to discuss the future. The group packed the ballroom in the Hilton with scientists, extension agents, interested citizens, and of course – producers. The afternoon before some attendees had the chance to visit farms in the area firsthand, one of which I’ve previously written about (White Rock Fish Farm). Friday held talks on the science, economics, and policies of aquaculture. Saturday morning wrapped up with freshwater and saltwater workshops tackling the details of growing fish. Parallel to the whole event was a trade show exhibiting the myriad food options available, water quality testing technology, cages and nets, greenhouses, and contacts for state programs. Friday night, there was proper celebration of aquaculture in the form of the Aquafood festival showcasing products from around the state. Take home message from the event? I left wanting to put a tank in my small Beaufort yard alongside the goats, chickens, and vegetable garden.

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Aquaculture in North Carolina: White Rock Fish Farm

“It’s a mom and pop operation, you could say”, described Ted Davis, owner of White Rock Fish Farm in Vanceboro NC. His smile extended ear to ear as he talked about his farm – and the length he goes to ensure his fish are never stressed on their way to the market. The trick? The farm’s small size – 8 ponds – allow the fish to be harvested by hand, each one receiving individual attention on their way to a shipping container. Another thing that makes his farm special? The hybrid striped bass have personality. They’re scared of tractors, eat more when there’s algae in their pond, and elicit hugs from visiting children.

Mr. Davis takes a whole day, with a helper, in harvesting his hybrid striped bass before they begin their frozen journey to Canada. Other growers, including his neighbors down the road, will spend just hours handling even more fish. Hybrid striped bass, however, bleed when they’re stressed. This turns their flesh and fins red, muddling the prized stripes for the marketplace. Plus, stressed fish release stress hormones and other chemicals that consumers can taste. So the White Rock way is to remove as much stress from the fish’s life as possible. Read More

Aquaculture in North Carolina: NC State’s Marine Aquaculture Research Center

This year we’re starting a new series highlighting the many faces of aquaculture in eastern North Carolina. From research facilities to new species under domestication to large facilities to feed the masses, there’s a lot going on in the state’s low-lying coast. Periodically, we’ll visit one and bring you pictures and stories from the operation. Stay tuned for more.


The entrance to the MARC facility. Scenic. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

The entrance to the MARC facility. Scenic. Photo by Andrew David Thaler

Tucked on the banks of Sleepy Creek between the two small towns of Marshallberg and Smyrna, NC, a world of new aquaculture ideas grows – NC State’s Marine Aquaculture Research Center.  A single building with large tanks behind emerged from the landscape as we drove down the dirt farm road that connects the property to the main road. Originally planned as a three-building complex, recent budget cuts  felt throughout the state have made the operation smaller – but no less important. The facility houses projects for anyone with an idea for how to forward aquaculture in the 21st century – be they local researchers, students, or people already in the industry. The two major projects happening during our visit are a comparison of hybrid and striped bass feeding efficiencies at a variety of temperatures and continuing development of a waste-management strategy for tank effluent water. There was also a red porgy mating effort and mud minnow spawning setup.

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Four fish fight for the future

How much of the world’s food supply is locked up in a few crops – corn, wheat, rice (for example) – and even fewer livestock – cows, pigs, chickens? Of the major commercial food production industries, only fish, and even then, only some fish, are still hunted. In a very real sense, fish are the last wild food. That may be changing. In Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, published last year, Paul Greenberg highlights the ways in which commercial fishing is becoming less like hunting and more like agriculture, with a few, often farm raised species, dominating the market.

Greenberg, a native of Long Island Sound who fished there since the 1970’s, documents the changes in four major fisheries – salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna – and the changing attitudes of the (mostly) men who catch them. He travels to Alaska to meet with First Nation salmon fishermen, to Greece to visit groundbreaking aquaculture facilities, he charters a tuna boat to experience the fight first hand, and across the world he talks to those of whom fishing matters most, including himself. At times, the book becomes autobiographical, focusing on Greenberg’s personal journey – but this is a book about fish and fishermen, and he is, if only recreationally, a fisher.

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Salmon, aquaculture, and the spread of Infectious Salmon Anemia

Coho salmon - public domain image

Coho salmon - public domain image

In 2008, a deadly virus decimated Chilean aquaculture facilities, causing $2 billion in damage and crippling an industry. This week, preliminary reports suggest that this same disease may have infected wild salmon in the north Pacific. The internet has been blowing up with news reports of Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) detected in wild salmon populations. Reports range from balanced – Deadly Fish Farm Virus Found in Wild Pacific Salmon – to hyperbolic – B.C.’s salmon feedlots need to be closed – but all hinge on the fact that ISA, a lethal salmon-infecting virus previously resigned to aquaculture facilities, has been detected in wild salmon populations in British Columbia. This has the potential to be a very big deal. ISA is 90% lethal and mortality occurs in 10 days or less. The virus is waterborn, but can also be transmitted through handling with contaminated equipment. There is no treatment once a fish is infected.

Before I go on, a couple points need to be clarified:

  1. ISA does not infect humans, though as it threatens a fishery and a major agricultural industry, it most certainly affects humans.
  2. ISA was isolated from 2 wild sockeye salmon. It has not been confirmed from independent test yet, although one statement indicates that the current infection is from a non-infectious strain of ISA (which raises some interesting questions about who currently knows what about this outbreak).

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